The window at the end of the landing was smashed.
Mick looked down at the smuggler who was sprawled at his feet. He didn’t need to check the club’s security feed to know what had happened; a clone haggling with the smuggler for safe passage had gone berserk, shot the smuggler with his own gun, and had escaped through the window. It was a safe bet that the clone was hiding in the ravine that unrolled from the back of the moonlit hill that braced the club’s rear exit, but Mick wasn’t going after the murderer. He picked up the gun, wedged it behind his belt, and leaned against the banister, surveying the floor below.
It was slow for a Friday night. A few couples, locals with money to burn, were dancing halfheartedly to the music playing in their heads while an underage Series D made a play for one of the regulars. He noticed three Series B clones slouched against the bar.
Curling his fingers, Mick launched a small screen from his wrist band. The image on the screen seemed to sag under the weight of the Marshall’s drooping jowls; the Marshall’s blunt voice streamed into the audio implant behind Mick’s ear.
“Another killing at the Apocalypse,” the Marshall growled.
“This one wasn’t a clone,” Mick said.
“And you think that’s an improvement?”
The Marshall policed two hundred square miles of the territory once known as New Mexico. He was part of the government remnant that had survived the war, a corrupt official who subsisted on bribes and kickbacks while the Company ran the real show, but Mick had to deal with him because of the Company’s clones. The ones on hold came to his club, the Apocalypse, to gamble and get stoned; the ones whose numbers had been called, who were heading north to catch the next flight to the Moon or to Mars, came to get laid by one of Mick’s sex droids. When they drank too much, hurt themselves or someone else, or damaged one of the droids, the Marshall was ready to lend a helping hand, if the price was right.
“What’ll it cost?” Mick asked.
Mick held his breath. He knew better than to get angry. “It was ten last time,” he said.
“He’s got to die somewhere else. It won’t be easy to cover up.”
“I can do ten now, the rest when you finish the job.”
“Okay. Send a service droid over with the body.”
Mick flicked his wrist band, killing the screen. He would lock the smuggler’s gun in his desk for safekeeping, in the same drawer where he kept the neural scrambler he’d confiscated last year. There were nights, not unlike this one, when he’d toyed with the idea of using the illegal scrambler on himself, although he would have erased more than a few days or a week’s worth of memories. Twenty to twenty-five years—that would be more like it.
Near the entrance to the club, a droid and a clone were circling through the security loop. When he looked more closely at the droid, a split second of confusion reigned in his head, and he pushed himself back from the banister, shocked by the feeling of vertigo.
He knew the droid. It was Ursa-Twelve, the sex droid who’d saved his life in New York. She was walking hand in hand with a clone, a Series D.
* * *
Mick was in Poughkeepsie when the bombs fell, seventeen low yield nuclear warheads that incinerated the only cities that mattered. He’d taken a leave of absence from his start-up to give his wife some time to think about an idiotic affair he’d had, and he’d been apart from Inga for two weeks when one of those seventeen bombs exploded above Manhattan, vaporizing the towers that pierced the sky.
The next morning, he marched for thirty miles against the thickening tide of refugees to cross the blackened, boiling waters of the East River at dusk in a ferry that limped toward Brooklyn. In the crowded streets, manually operated vehicles moved along at a crawl, their headlights illuminating the carcasses of crashed drones and disabled bots while men, women, and children scurried in and out of the stores and bodegas, their arms loaded with whatever food and clothes they could carry. To the west, pillars of fire burned behind the dense smog of soot and smoke, a pungent shroud of charred remains that covered the city like a black fog.
Most of the structures in his neighborhood were still standing, including Mick’s building, the walk up where he’d lived with his wife for five years. The mess the looters had left behind told him nothing except that she wasn’t there, so he spent the night in his closet, barricaded behind a door he nailed shut from the inside. The next day, he combed through the parade of lost souls, searching for the only face that mattered, but by that afternoon, he’d traded the once familiar street corners for the triage centers that had been erected in suddenly vacant lots. Pacing the length of each tent, he scanned the cots occupied by the wounded with the same errant hope, praying that somehow, by some kind of miracle, Inga might have wound up here.
But he knew he wouldn’t find her. She worked in Manhattan, and she’d been in Manhattan when the bombs fell.
Days later, while he was wandering through the wasteland of the borough he’d called home, he was attacked by a gang of teens who nearly killed him. Badly beaten and bleeding, he somehow backtracked to the last hospital he’d visited, a windowless warehouse where electric lanterns cast tendrils of blue-white light across the endless rows of the sick and the dying. A droid helped him to his feet when he collapsed on the concrete floor, a sex droid with silky blond hair and sparkling blue eyes who’d been retooled to perform minor surgery and palliative care. Her name was Ursa-Twelve, but Mick didn’t call her that, even at the beginning; to him, she was Inga, even though he knew that his Inga was gone.
While he was bedridden, Mick reminisced with the droid, telling her about the things he and his wife liked to do together and the places they liked to go. After a week of this, the droid had collected enough information about Inga to respond as Inga would, and she molded herself into the thing that would help him heal. At night, they shared a narrow cot together, and he made love to her in the dark while the generators hummed and the survivors surrounding them cried themselves to sleep. Whispering his wife’s name in her ear over and over again, he told himself that a part of Inga had been reborn in the mind of the droid, and this small comfort gave him a reason to survive.
At the end of the month, a grim looking doctor recommended that he be released. As he boarded a commercial hopper bound for the untouched wilds of New Jersey, Mick realized that he didn’t want to go. He was in love with what Ursa had become; it wasn’t the same kind of love he’d felt for his wife, but it seemed just as real.
* * *
Mick started down the suspended stairs. Ursa, or Inga, which was what he wanted to call her, was standing alone near the bar, watching a couple dance to music she wasn’t tuned to while colorful holograms dripped from the club’s ceiling, lighting up her perfect face.
Mick had thought of her often, and he’d even tried to track her down once, driven by the hope that she hadn’t been reprogrammed during the decade of recovery that witnessed the rise of the Company and the corresponding dawn of its patented clones, but he didn’t think, now, that she would recognize him.
A bright smile graced her red lips, which had faded a little in the intervening years. Her skin had also hardened some, especially around her neck, and he sensed some stiffness in her joints as he cupped her elbows to draw her close. She seemed just as beautiful, however, as she’d been the day he left Brooklyn.
“Ursa, what are you doing here?”
“A friend brought me,” she said.
“You’re traveling together?”
It wasn’t unheard of for a clone to pair up with a droid, but it was unusual. Clones were more comfortable with their own kind when they were on the move. Or on the run.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?” she asked.
“I have some private booths down below.”
She followed Mick down a wide stairwell into the carpeted, dimly lit basement. The booths were largely empty, aside from a couple immersed in a drug cloud and a Series C clone savoring the jiggling quiver of an induced seizure. Raising his hand above his head, Mick dragged a floating orb of light toward the booth in the darkest corner. He softened the orb’s output as Inga slid in next to him, and then he switched on the booth’s magnetic privacy shield.
“I still have the data dot you gave me,” she said.
He’d forgotten about that, the backup dot full of pictures, videos, and posts from his married life; Ursa had uploaded it to herself to fill out what she knew about Inga.
“How about this friend of yours?” he asked. “Is he a short timer?”
“What did he do?”
She stared at the marbled pattern scrolling across the surface of the smart table.
“He’s coming,” she said.
Following her gaze, Mick watched the Series D clone walk with a measured pace down the stairs. He was tall and thin, a shallow breather bred for life on Mars, but he looked at least fifteen years older than he was supposed to be. His black hair was tinged with gray.
“Couldn’t find the guy you were looking for?” Mick asked.
The Series D sat next to Ursa. “This is Mick,” she explained, touching the clone’s wrist band to send him a message that unfurled in the audio implant behind his ear.
“Nice to meet you, Mick. You can call me Tyrellius.”
Mick hid his surprise. Tyrellius was the most notorious clone in the country. Rumor had it that he’d de-chipped thousands of clones and was preparing an army of resistance that would destroy the Company’s cloning operation. He’d had a hefty bounty on his head for more than a year.
“Mick owns the Apocalypse,” Ursa said.
Tyrellius smiled. “I suppose he knows the man we’re here to meet.”
“If you’re talking about Kilimnik, the smuggler, you’re out of luck,” Mick replied.
“Why do you say that?”
“He was murdered. Upstairs, about twenty minutes ago.”
“That’s unfortunate. Do you know who did it?”
Mick nodded. “A clone, like yourself.”
Tyrellius hesitated. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but since Ursa here believes that you might be able to help us—Kilimnik was our ticket across the border,” the clone explained.
“So I figured,” Mick said. “Won’t be easy to get you across that border, given that you’re a wanted man.”
“Wanted for the wrong reasons.”
“You could say that. If you were convinced that clones have the same rights as the rest of us.”
“Don’t they?” Ursa asked.
Mick glanced at Ursa. “I run a pleasure palace. I’m no philosopher,” he said.
“I bet you would feel differently if you were a clone,” she replied.
“Maybe I would.”
Tyrellius flicked his wrist, casting a round screen onto the smart table. “If you’re interested in helping us, you can reach me through this party,” he said. “If you’re not, I won’t hold it against you.”
Mick watched the contact disk drift toward his sleeve. The clone got up to go.
“I hope we’ll meet again,” Ursa said, lowering her voice.
“So do I.”
She tapped the smart table with her long, thin fingers as she slid out of the booth. Mick waited until the couple was gone to decode the message she’d left behind, which was short and to the point.
She was coming back to see him later that night. And she was coming alone.
* * *
The Apocalypse cleared out after one. The sickly sweet vapors of diluted drugs dissipated, giving way to the sour bite of spilled beer. The drunkest of the remaining clones tried to hassle Mick’s bartender, a legless droid who was bolted to a sliding rail behind the bar, and got himself banned from the club, but the rest of them slipped out quietly, many of them with their heads down or their hands in their pockets. When the last one was gone, a Company drone zipped through the security loop to do its nightly sweep, floating from floor to floor to look for clones past their due dates who might be hiding in the club. The sex droids started their cleaning cycles; the doors closed at two.
Mick allowed himself a single finger of old fashioned bourbon, ignoring the pleas of his bartender, Jax, who was always trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. Then he programmed the loop to let in the droid he was waiting for, said goodnight to his staff, and went up to his room on the third floor.
He tried to distract himself with the usual business of the day, but he couldn’t focus on the bills that needed to be paid, and he found himself craving another drink. He took a shower instead, letting the warm jets pound his shoulders. He heard the door open while he was drying off; she was waiting for him when he emerged from the bathroom.
She was wearing a simple black dress and a smile that made him feel like a younger man. A chill pricked his bare chest when he realized that she was speaking in his wife’s voice, a voice that was brighter and breezier than Ursa’s.
“Hello, Inga,” he said.
Dimming the lights, he led her to his bed, where he began to undress her. When she kissed him, he felt a pleasurable thrill that seemed to lift him into the air.
“Talk to me,” he whispered. “Talk to me about us.”
She began to describe the life he’d lived with Inga in Brooklyn, remembering their weekend walks through Prospect Park, spring picnics, summer games on the green grass, and the colors of fall.
“You scolded me for feeding the squirrels,” she said, laughing softly.
“Yes,” he answered, kissing her again. “Go on.”
She explored the old neighborhood, lingering at the trendy cafe where they often met for coffee. While he kissed her, she recalled the friends that they met at that cafe on Sunday mornings, and as she continued to resurrect the life that he’d led with his wife, the mistakes of the past seemed to dissolve and disappear.
When they’d finished making love, he wasn’t surprised to hear her say that she’d missed him. He believed it, just as he believed that his feelings for the droid were genuine, unimpeachable and impervious to the passing of time.
* * *
When Mick woke up, she was gathering her clothes under a narrow cone of light. She looked marvelous, even if she was made of circuits and silicone, and he propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look at her while she was getting dressed.
“How did you wind up with Tyrellius?”
“He was sick,” she answered, fixing the clasp of her bra. “He needed help, and I helped him.”
“He’d tried to remove his own chip. The wound became infected, and the infection spread to the rest of his body. When he was well enough, I finished what he’d started.”
Mick swung his legs out of bed. The sky was smeared with a premonition of dawn.
“And you’ve been de-chipping his friends ever since,” he said.
She stepped into her dress. “Clones are incapable of removing the chips by themselves,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. There’s a reason for that.”
Stepping out of the spotlight thrown down by the floating orb, she joined him on the bed, drawing his hands into hers.
“We’re setting them free, Mick. Without those chips, they can’t be tracked, and if they can’t be tracked, they can’t be forced to work in the Moon mines or in the Mars colonies.”
“They don’t have the right to be free. They belong to the Company.”
“Yes, but as children, they play, they go to school. They have families—”
“As they get older, they dream of falling in love, of being able to do what they want, not what the Company tells them to do. Is that so much to ask?”
“They aren’t human,” Mick said. “They’re engineered to mature in half the time a normal person does. That’s why Tyrellius has gone gray. He hasn’t been taking the drug that keeps a clone’s metabolism in check when he turns sixteen.”
She raised her hand to caress his hair. “They want the same things you do, Mick.”
He thought of the Apocalypse and of the clones who were the source of most of the club’s revenue. There were times when he sympathized with them, when the resentment smoldering in their ubiquitous brown eyes gave him a reason to comp their drinks or grant them an extra hour with one of his sex droids, but he had problems of his own.
Edging closer to him, she nuzzled his neck with her soft, plump lips. When she spoke again, her voice had changed; she was Inga once more.
“Will you help us?” she asked.
“I need to see Tyrellius first.”
She kissed him one last time, stood up, and started for the door. As she walked away, it was easy for him to pretend that she was a real woman, a woman who had real feelings for him, but when the door closed behind her, the light that had tuned itself to her presence extinguished itself, and darkness swirled back into the room.
* * *
Mick was eating breakfast in the kitchen when the Marshall called. Because Mick had left his wrist band upstairs and was wearing a cheap shirt, a dumb blend of fabrics with a limited set of features, the call screen slid down the fridge and re-appeared on top of the smart table, where it distorted itself to match Mick’s perspective.
“What’s the news?” Mick asked.
A wicked grin cocked the Marshall’s mouth. “That clone who made a mess at your club turned himself in.”
Mick set down his fork. “Did you run his chip?”
“Course I did. He’s the one. Cracked his ankle up too.” The Marshall sighed, blinking his bloodshot eyes. “Makes this deal much tougher to set up,” he said.
“How much tougher?”
“Fifty thousand is the best I can do. I’ve got your ten on hold here, and I know you’re good for the rest, but I’ll need another five to get started.”
“Fifty thousand is three months’ take,” Mick said.
“I’d do better by you if I could, but that’s the way it is.”
Mick’s breakfast boiled in his stomach. He had less than twenty thousand on hand. To come up with the other twenty, he’d have to sell one of his sex droids, which would cut into his profits and put the club on dangerously uneven footing.
“I’ll have to check my books, but I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”
“Just remember, we’re on a tight schedule. Not a lot of time to get this done.”
“By the way, this clone showed up without the smuggler’s gun. You wouldn’t know something about that, would you?”
“Not a thing.”
Mick swept his hand over the table to kill the screen and swigged down what was left of his coffee. Mary-Eight, the more able bodied of his two service droids, came in to clean the table as he made his way through the back door.
Torn clouds tumbled across the blue sky, but he knew it wouldn’t rain. He pulled his single engine hopper out of the shed behind the Apocalypse; a breeze rustled the pines as he climbed inside. Disengaging the automatic controls and the location services, he set the hopper to hover to save the charge and steered away from the club’s gravel lot, aiming for a narrow unpaved path that the smugglers knew by heart.
He kept his eyes open for drones while the hopper hugged the hardened curves. When he came out on an open field dotted with cactus and tufts of yellowed grass, he spotted a Company carrier lumbering along at low altitude and checked his speed for a moment, but the vessel was heading south. Accelerating, he jumped a dry river bed filled with the splintered remains of a wooden bridge and rose an extra ten feet in the air as he struck a stretch of cracked asphalt. At the top of a low hill, an ancient billboard covered with graffiti marked the edge of the slum settlement that belonged to the clones.
The settlement was where the clones who were old enough to work waited for their numbers to get called. Run down stucco houses and tin lean-tos girded by heaps of trash littered the landscape; wheelbarrows that parceled out the rations airdropped by the Company’s drones stood ready beside the foot paths that connected one derelict dwelling to another. Mick parked his hopper beside a squat hut slathered with bold red paint and got out with his hands up. A pair of Series D clones came out to meet him; after they’d patted him down, they slipped a blindfold over his eyes, spun him around several times, and made him sit in one of the wheelbarrows.
The fetid smell of sewage stung his nose while they pushed him over one of the paths. When the wheelbarrow stopped moving, the clones led him into a cool building with a hard floor and told him to stand still while they moved something heavy to one side. He listened to them open a door with squeaking hinges.
“Go slowly,” one of them mumbled.
He took the clone’s advice, keeping his hand on a dirt wall to steady himself. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, the blindfold was removed, and he found himself standing in a long, narrow space. Camping lanterns were hung from the wooden beams that supported the ceiling; Tyrellius was sitting on a folding chair next to a cot covered with bedding. He gestured for Mick to sit down, pointing amiably at a wooden bench as Mick’s escorts retreated from the room.
“Welcome to my humble hideaway,” Tyrellius said.
Mick sat down, folded his hands together, and gave Tyrellius a cold, hard stare. “Well,” he started, “here’s the deal. You’re too big a fish for the smugglers who play a fair game. They won’t risk carrying you. The others, and there are three who are willing, can’t be trusted. They’ll turn you over as soon as you’re buckled in.”
Crow’s feet appeared around Tyrellius’ eyes as he smiled. “So you’ve come with an offer of your own,” he said. “What do you propose?”
“Thirty-five thousand to rent a quad copter, which includes insurance against us getting stopped before we reach the border.”
“You’ve flown one before?”
“Just the thirty-five? Is that all?”
“No, it isn’t. I also want your droid.”
“Ursa? She’s not for sale.”
“Doesn’t matter. Thirty-five plus your droid. That’s my price.”
“But you’d be lucky to get fifteen for her on the open market. And how many of your clients would want to sleep with a droid as old as she is?”
Mick leaned forward, setting his elbows on his knees. “I’m not going to sell her, and I won’t put her to work,” he said. “I want her for myself.”
Tyrellius rubbed the back of his neck. Standing up, he paced the length of the dugout, avoiding a wooden beam that blocked his path.
“So we have something in common,” he said, laughing softly as he turned around. “Strange that an artificial being such as herself, a thing that can’t feel what we feel, could be the saving grace of not one but two men.” He paused, pursing his lips. “Clones are raised to believe that they are soulless, like animals, you know. Ursa gave me more than a second chance, Mick; she provided the means for me to achieve my own salvation, to save myself through her. You could say that she was a substitute for that salvation, a kind of proxy. Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you; maybe it’s hard to understand, since you’re an ordinary man, but I wouldn’t be the same person without her. I can’t give her up; I won’t.”
“Then you’d better get used to this hole in the ground,” Mick said.
Tyrellius crossed the room; his eyes had become warm and wistful in the scattered light.
“But there’s a price on her head as well,” he replied. “Would you condemn the two of us? Just because of your own selfishness?”
Even in the half-light, Mick could see how certain of himself he was, how stubbornly he would fight for what he wanted.
“I can do a hundred-thousand, with fifty up front,” Tyrellius said, “and I’ll download whatever part of Ursa you’re interested in onto a data dot that you can upload to one of your own droids.”
“That’s not good enough,” Mick said.
As he started for the stairs, the clones who’d brought him over came back down. The one in the lead was carrying a baseball bat.
“There will be none of that,” Tyrellius said sternly. “Send him safely on his way.”
The pair nodded numbly. They worked in silence as they blindfolded Mick and led him up the steps, but he could hear them cursing his name and his club in bitter whispers while they pushed the wheelbarrow over a flat, rocky path. When they dumped Mick out beside the red house, they focused their furious stares at him and spat at the tall grass near his feet.
“Don’t come back,” one of them muttered.
He was a younger, angrier version of Tyrellius, destined to die someday on Mars.
* * *
The club was open when Mick got back. As soon as he went upstairs, he lost his temper with Sin-Seven, his top performer, because the purple haired beauty had accidentally reset her skin paint routine to its factory defaults, sheathing her naked body in kitschy, poorly animated dragon tattoos. He spent the better part of an hour restoring the complex pattern he’d designed for her the year before; when he finished, he walked over to the bar to get himself a drink.
“It’s early,” Jax said. “Shouldn’t you eat something first, boss?”
“Shut up, you hunk of junk, and pour me a bourbon.”
The droid slid down the bar to retrieve a half-empty bottle, poured a finger of liquid into a short glass, and slid back to Mick to place the glass gingerly on the counter.
“Want to talk about it?” the droid asked.
“I told you to stop doing that,” Mick snapped.
“Okay; sorry, boss.”
Mick tossed back the bourbon on his way to the basement, where he sealed himself in one of the booths and called the Marshall, who was slack jawed, as if he’d just woken up.
“What’s the clone’s story?” Mick asked.
“Says he was attacked by that smuggler, who threatened to shoot him. The gun changed hands when they were struggling, and somehow it just happened to go off.”
“You know that’s not what happened.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the Marshall croaked. “He’s in my custody now, and that’s how we’ll play it if you can’t come up with the cash.”
Mick pushed a lock of hair back from his forehead. “I need some more time to raise the rest of it,” he said.
“You’ve got twenty-four hours. After that, I start filing the reports.”
Mick switched off the shield and tapped his table to order another drink. Sin-Seven arrived a moment later with a freshly filled glass; she was dressed in glowing green stockings and a black bodice that looped through one of Mick’s favorite films, a movie he’d seen many times with Inga, his wife. Downing the bourbon, he asked her to bring him another one.
“Jax said you shouldn’t have any more,” she said.
“Tell Jax to mind his own business.”
He wondered if the clones who had slept with her thought of her pretty face while they were sitting on the launch pad, waiting to be blasted into space. The question made him feel sorry for them, and he was ashamed of himself as he watched her walk away.
* * *
He came to on the sofa in his bedroom. His head didn’t hurt, but his mouth was full of cotton, and when he sat up, the walls suddenly shifted, which made him worry that he was going to be sick.
“You should know better, getting drunk at your age.”
For an instant, Mick saw his wife’s face instead of the droid’s—the real Inga’s finely etched eyebrows, freckled cheeks, and blunt nose—but the illusion was shattered by the harsh light of the lighting orb that followed Ursa across the room.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Almost midnight. Open up.”
She popped a pill in his mouth and pressed a glass of water into his hand. He drank as much of it as he could and stood up.
“Coffee?” he asked.
He dimmed the light from the orb and waved it away. “I wish Tyrellius would’ve left you out of this,” he said.
“He couldn’t. We’re partners, Mick.”
“Then he should be here. Why isn’t he?”
“Because he doesn’t know. I wanted to make you understand on my own.”
“I understand everything. Perfectly.”
“Do you? Do you know that you’re still a sick man, after all these years?”
The door opened. Mary-Eight came in with the coffee.
“Where do you want it, chief?”
“Leave it on the desk.”
As the door closed, Ursa pressed her hand against Mick’s shoulder, urging him to sit back down. She brought the cup and saucer to him and joined him on the sofa as he took several sips. Then she placed the saucer on a cluttered end table and put her hand on his knee.
“Where was your wife when the bomb fell, Mick?”
“She was at work, in Manhattan,” he said.
“Where did Inga work?”
“At a hospital. She was a nurse.”
It seemed like an odd thing to say out loud. After so many years of reconstructing the life he’d shared with Inga, the person she was when they were apart had faded in his memory, becoming a pale shadow of the woman he remembered.
“I’m doing what I’m doing because of her, not because of Tyrellius, and not because of you,” Ursa explained. “What was in the past has to stay in the past, Mick. You will have to live without it, because I can’t stay here. I won’t.”
She kissed him, and her kiss burned away the last wisps of the alcoholic fog that had clouded his mind. Then she got up to go, closing the door softly behind her as she left.
The craving for another drink tapped at the back of Mick’s throat, pestering him like a spurned friend while he thought about what Ursa had told him. He knew that she was right about the past, and he could feel himself weighing his own desire against the compulsion she had to help Tyrellius and the other clones. Maybe she was right about them as well; maybe it was time for Mick to admit that he’d been preying on them, using them the way he used the droids he’d bought and programmed. He remembered what Tyrellius had told him about the clones being soulless, and how he’d described Ursa in almost spiritual terms, as a means of achieving the salvation that was beyond his grasp.
Maybe it was time to let her go—to really let her go. But they still needed his help, and he had the Marshall on his back, and the smuggler who’d been killed by a clone in his club. He would have to do it his way, on his terms; otherwise, he’d be no help at all, even to himself.
Curling his fingers, he slipped a screen into his palm. The Marshall was eager to talk to Mick; greed glittered in his black eyes at the mention of a new deal.
* * *
It was just after ten-thirty in the morning when Tyrellius and Ursa arrived at the Apocalypse. The club was closed; Mick had confined his droids to their quarters. Tyrellius smiled at him when they reached the center of the simply lit floor.
“I’m glad to have you on our side,” he said.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Mick replied. “There’s one more thing I have to take care of before we go. Excuse me.”
He went downstairs with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket, but he stopped before he reached the basement. Making sure that he couldn’t see Tyrellius or be seen by him, he leaned against the carpeted wall and tapped his wrist band to send the Marshall, who was hidden upstairs, a message. Mick had told him, the night before, that there would be a sixty thousand dollar bounty waiting for him at the club if he brought along the Series C clone who had turned himself in.
A moment later, an outburst echoed through the empty room.
“Stay where you are, Tyrellius!” the Marshall shouted.
Listening to the Marshall and the Series C come down from the second story landing, Mick counted the seconds to gauge their progress as they crossed the floor. When the Marshall spoke again, addressing Ursa, Mick bolted up the stairs and sprinted toward the pear shaped lawman, who was guiding a handcuffed Series C clone toward Tyrellius. Mick closed the distance between them just as the Series C was beginning to turn around; jamming the smuggler’s gun into the Marshall’s back, he wrenched the fat man’s weapon from his thick fingers before the lawman knew what was happening.
“Mick!” he gasped. “What are you doing?”
“Uncuff the clone.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t double cross me!”
“I don’t want to shoot you, Marshall, but I will if I have to.”
The Marshall slid his wrist band over the cuffs, which popped open and fell to the ground.
“Move over there,” Mick said, gesturing at the Series C.
Scared and confused, the clone moved cautiously, positioning himself halfway between Mick and Tyrellius.
“Tyrellius, come here and take the Marshall’s gun.”
Tyrellius circled around the Marshall to take the second weapon from Mick.
“Go stand behind your buddy,” Mick said.
“I thought you were helping us, Mick.”
Gun in hand, Tyrellius joined the Series C, standing a few feet behind the other clone.
Slipping a screen into his palm, Mick launched it with a determined flick of his wrist and tugged it with a second motion to project it in the air above their heads. Then he expanded the screen with a voice command, making the image easy for everyone to see.
“So you’re innocent?” he asked the Series C. “Is that your story?”
The video playing on the suspended screen showed the Series C punching the smuggler, a heavyset man with a trimmed beard, while the smuggler’s back was turned. When the other man was down, the clone took the smuggler’s holstered gun; yelling something that was garbled by the noise of the club, the Series C aimed the gun and fired it twice. Then he dropped the weapon and ran out of the frame.
Disposing of the screen, Mick looked sideways at Tyrellius. “After he ran off, he turned himself in to make a deal with the Marshall, who was going to take me for fifty thousand.”
“That’s crazy, Mick,” the Marshall stammered.
“Shut up,” Mick said. “Tyrellius, you seem to think that clones have the same rights as men. Let’s see if you can prove it.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Show me what you would do to a man who kills another man.”
Tyrellius glanced quickly at Ursa. “What about the Marshall?” he asked.
Mick patted the side pocket of his jacket. “I brought along a neural scrambler. He won’t remember anything that’s happened in the last two days.”
The Marshall stiffened. “That will only make things worse for you, Mick. The Company’s going to lean on you, lean on you hard.”
“I don’t give a damn if they do. The Company’s not going to push me around anymore.”
The sound of whirring propellers told him that the empty quad copter he’d rented was starting its landing sequence outside. Shifting his grip on the gun he was holding, Mick noticed the familiar look of determination that had settled in Tyrellius’ eyes. At the same time, he saw the Series C’s clenched fists and realized that the fugitive was making eye contact with the Marshall, who signaled back with a nearly imperceptible nod of his bulbous head.
Then the Series C spun around, socking Tyrellius in the jaw. The gun between them went off, spitting out a bullet that ricocheted against the ceiling, and suddenly the clones were on the ground. The Marshall fumbled with his hands, trying desperately to get his pistol back from Mick, but Mick was too fast for him; he struck the Marshall with the butt of his own gun, gave him a solid push, and hit him again in the back of the head, knocking out the fat man.
Ursa was beside the limb-locked clones, trying to pull them apart.
“Get back!” Mick shouted.
Another shot exploded from the gun. Ursa dropped to her knees; Mick grabbed the Series C and pulled him off of Tyrellius, whose chest was covered with blood and black powder.
“Forgive me,” Tyrellius whispered. “Forgive me, brother.”
His face was swollen and bleeding, but he was able to stand up with Mick and Ursa’s help. The other clone was dead.
Taking the gun from Tyrellius, Mick wiped it down and left it next to the dead man; he returned the other weapon to its original owner, the Marshall, who was sleeping peacefully on the floor.
“Hold his head still, just in case.”
Ursa held the Marshall while Mick adjusted the scrambler’s flexible wand and pressed it against the Marshall’s temple. A minute later, the scramble was complete, and the three of them started for the door.
As he was leaving, Mick took a last look at the second floor landing, the holographic projectors that circled the ceiling, and Jax, the lifeless droid bolted to the bar. He couldn’t say yet whether he would miss the Apocalypse, but he knew that he wouldn’t see it again; he’d made up his mind the night before that it was time to say goodbye.
Outside, the idling engines of the quad copter hummed under the spacious dome of a bright blue sky. Watching Ursa walk hand in hand with the clone who had given her life purpose, Mick remembered the night they’d spent together and wondered whether she would carry on the crusade after Tyrellius expired. A part of him hoped that she would, and it wasn’t hard for him to imagine an older version of himself joining the fight.
Buckling the two of them into the hold, Mick climbed into the cockpit and set the quad copter’s controls to manual. With his thoughts locked on the safety of his two passengers, he drove the quad into the air, rising above the shallow hills of the territory once known as New Mexico to set his sights on a country he’d never seen.
He was finished with the past. He was finally free.
This story previously appeared on Star Ship Sofa, No. 605, 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
A former English teacher and studio photographer, Chad Gayle’s speculative fiction has appeared in The Colored Lens, Perihelion SF, and StarShipSofa. He shares a tiny Manhattan apartment with his wonderful wife, two kids, and three rescue cats, where he dreams of a day when a bagel with cream cheese will actually be good for you.